Social Entrepreneurship – a good (but not great) book to read

Book review of Social Entrepreneurship

My introduction to David Bornstein’s writing was How to change the world. And I think that it is an excellent book and I will recommend reading it. So, when I found out (well Amazon told me !) that he was collaborating with Susan Davis (of Grameen foundation) to write a book on Social Entrepreneurship, I said, sign me up for it. What caught my eye was not the title of the book but the subtitle of it – What everyone needs to know (about social entrepreneurship). The table of contents was also impressive

  1. Defining social entrepreneurship
  2. Challenges of causing change
  3. Envisioning an innovating society

The table of contents didn’t talk about anything specific and I thought may be the contents would be a bit more specific. But, I was a tad disappointed that the book is not as specific as I would have liked it to be.

Let’s look at each section. The first section is the definition of social entrepreneurship. This section gives enough background about social entrepreneurship. For those who don’t have an active interest in this field, I think this section does an excellent job about giving enough background regarding the field. This section is sort of a primer for soc-entrepreneurs, defining the typical characteristics of a social entrepreneur, when the field as a separate entity got recognized and which are the important organizations currently in operation. This section is definitely recommended for anyone who wants to know how social entrepreneurship differs from (say) activism. And there is a section which deals with that too. The definition clearly gives a perspective on social entrepreneurship. Quoting the book

Activism can be thought of as a subset of social entrepreneurship, one of the many tactics employed to advance change. The simplest distinction is that, activists generally seek to elicit change by influencing decision making of large institutions or by changing public attitudes, while social entrepreneurs pursue a wider range of options, including building institutions that directly implement solutions themselves.

This provides the clear distinction between an activist protesting about something and a social entrepreneur tackling the same problem (say for example, the childline in India) by starting an organization. Another important sub-section in this section is the What does a social entrepreneur do?. This section defines the role of a social entrepreneur. From the book –

The system changer must therefore overcome apathy, habit, incomprehension, and disbelief while facing heated resistance from those with vested interests. Social entpreneurs have to figure out how to make it happen.

I think, that sort of defines the role of a social entrepreneur.

The second section is about the challenges of causing change. Very few people like change, even though change might be constant. It is the struggle to get acceptance for the change which is the first hurdle for any social entrepreneur. And the next challenge is the finance. Or may be it is the other way round ! Finance of the operation is a major struggle for any entrepreneur, even more so for a social entrepreneur. Unlike an entrepreneur, there might not be financial returns for a social entrepreneur; and even if there were; they might be either meagre or insufficient, happening in a sporadic fashion. Given the uncertainty of the returns, the first concern for any social entrepreneur is to raise the finances for the cause for his/her own sustenance and eventually the organization’s growth. In this section, the authors explain the various ways social organizations have raised capital. Organizations like The Skoll foundation, Ashoka, Civic ventures, New profit inc, micro-entrepreneur connectors like Kiva, RangDe (the authors don’t write about RangDe), KYC4 are the typical sources of funding.One important thing to note though – all of these organizations are willing to fund entrepreneurs who are willing to execute on a plan. It is very important to understand that a social entrepreneur should have some sort of an operation going before (s)he can garner more founds from these organizations. Merely having an idea and looking for funds generally doesn’t help. Another challenge for any social entrepreneur is attracting talent and scaling the organization. This is going to be always a challenge. That is why you will never see a very large social organization. Even if they are, they typically would be backed by some public body ensuring a constant fund-stream. So, it is important for social entrepreneurs to understand these challenges. In this section, the authors explain some of the challenges, though, they do admit that attracting good talent is going to be a challenge. It is about the person appealing to a different aspect of the prospective employee to interest him/her to join the organization. Of course, the cause alone won’t be able to attract talent and enough financial incentive should be available for anyone to join an organization.

An interesting sub-section in this one is – What is the difference between scale and impact. In this section, the authors write about how a larger impact can be made by organizations which already have the scale. It is like how Thomas Friedman explains in this interview about changing leaders instead of bulbs. Unless there is no scale, all we will have is a hobby. Though, that seems a bit far too hard on people dealing with micro-changes, it is something that should be at the back of everyone’s mind. However much impact is important, scale is equally important too. So, it is not about starting an idea alone, it is also about scaling that idea that a social entrepreneur (a successful one i.e.) thinks about.

The final section is very generic. It talks about how to inculcate the qualities of innovation in a society. Most of it is applicable for for-profit enterprises too. So, I won’t delve too much into it. There is though, one part of this where the authors talk about how philanthropy can be more effective. This is an important aspect of any social organization and for the funding organizations. In this, the authors suggest a few things to philanthropists about how to engage with social entrepreneurs. Things like

  • Help social entrepreneurs engage more with businesses and governments
  • Fund structural supports for social entrepreneurs
  • Stick with things that work and communicate early (I think this is contrary to the next one)
  • let organizations die (an implication of this is that people should be willing to try things that might not work too)
  • Help social entrepreneurs work together

The final section is very interesting, wherein the authors talk about how individuals can prepare themselves to be part of a the field of social entrepreneurship. This is sort of a high level design document about what one can do before becoming a social entrepreneur full time. The authors don’t get very specific, they talk very generally about what are things that one can do. It would have been nicer if they could have gotten a bit specific and illustrate with some examples of existing social organizations.

So, what do I think about this book. I think this book is a good one. I expected specific examples like the previous work of one of the authors. But this book is not about specifics. And the flow is not always kept going. The narrative can drift away sometimes. I read this book twice to get the gist of it (it is not a very large book). Maybe because I was aware of most of the things that the authors were talking about, I didn’t find it very interesting. Maybe for someone who is a beginner in the field, it might be very helpful. I will still suggest this book – whether you are a pro or a beginner in the field. A 6 out of 10.

Democratization of book reading

Democratzation of the Internet. How many times have we heard of this expression. Quite a few times I would think. For example, Google helps small business get the visibility that they would not have otherwise got. And that is a very powerful idea. In a swoop, the Internet (OK, technically not the Inter-webs but the various sites like Google, Lulu, eBay, Amazon, Yahoo and the rest) has created a level playing field. And these are large businesses that don’t even have a brick and mortar presence. Wait, you are reading this, wondering what it is that I am talking about. This is what the 90s was about. This was what computer magazines and business magazines were hailing when I was in college (yes, that was long ago !). But one area where there was no level playing field was books. And when I said level playing field, I don’t mean for the publishers or the authors or for the enablers like Amazon, but for people like me – the readers. And how is it the case you wonder ! And I shall explain.

The lack of level playing field is the access to books. In India, there was a very limited selection of books that I could get my hands on. In Bangalore, the sources of books were

  • Blossoms
  • Gangarams
  • Bookworm
  • Crossword

And the last one was more mirrors and mainstream books than anything else. I have nothing against Crossword, but somehow, I feel that their idea of having a coffee shop and a book store beside each other, like one can do in Borders in the US didn’t take off. And after a while, they did not, (for a good reason) allow readers to take books to the coffee shop. And in Madras, Landmark and the Moore market were my favorite joints (like any other book-lover from Madras can vouch for). And to digress a bit, the Landmark in Bangalore feels like a supermarket instead of a book-store. Atleast the one in Madras feels more like a book-store. And in Hyderabad, well, it was the Sunday street-side vendors in Abids. I have been told that the bookstores in Kothi alongside the women’s college have made way to development activities. Of course, I always felt that Hyderabad was the laggard when it comes to books; and no, Walden really is not a redeeming feature.

Given the above, one would think that there would be a large selection of books that would have been available. And that, my dear reader is where the story takes a turn. Even though the above had a selection of books, the buyer of the books did not have a choice. You had to look for a book and be happy with whatever you find (and sometimes you do find great books too, like hardbound versions from the 60s !). If you were looking for a rare book or for a esoteric new book, most likely you would be out of luck. One would have no choice but to look for the book on some site like Amazon / B&N / sometimes on eBay. The cost of the book (taking into consideration the exchange rate and the foreign transaction fees) would most often be shadowed by the cost of the shipping of the book. And when you are buying a book which converts to close to INR 1500, every penny for the shipping does make a difference. With me so far?

So what is the democratization? It is the e-book reader ! It might be the Kindle (which by the way is definitely worth the buy – more on that later), the nook, the Sony reader or any other reader. These e-readers, with an upfront cost, have removed the shipping costs out of the equation. And, that creates a market for the vendor (like Amazon), for the publisher (NoStarch for e.g.,) and savings for the reader. And this makes books available within the reach of most of the book lovers. Of course, as someone who loves paper books, I know that the e-book readers will never replace the joy of having a paper book and the memories that the book holds (like what Partridge says). But, what the e-book reader creates is the ability for readers to read books that they would not treasure the way they would treasure paper books. And an e-book reader is useful in another case – technical books. Off late I have not seen a technical book which can’t be used on a weighing scale. In such a situation, the e-readers help lighten the load – both monetarily and the weight-wise.
Given the above, what about the price point of the existing e-book readers? Do you think that the costs of those are manageable? For example, the nook sold for $99 recently and the basic kindle sells for $139. Is that too much of a price to pay for reading books? Can an reader with support for e-ink be created within a price point of <$100 ? If such a reader were possible, the list of features I would like to see on it

  • Support for e-ink. B&W is good enough. Don’t need a colour one
  • Support for epub, with mobi as an extended support
  • Better rendering of PDF documents – generally PDFs are not displayed as well as the native formats. Though this is not a strict requirement
  • Connects via USB
  • wi-fi would be a good to have and a basic browser would be enough
  • I am not sure about DRM for the books though. DRM is important for the vendor. I don’t know enough of the existing formats to know how their support for DRM is. At some point, DRM will become important for any e-book reader. So, I toss in DRM too.

Are there any other features that you think are a requirement for an e-reader?

Superfreakonomics – soooper ?

OK, so the title is cheesy and that is intentional. At-least caught your eye didn’t it. So, what is it about? The rogue economists with a penchant for the uncanny, for making connections that will make afternoon soap opera fan’s head swirl, come up with conclusions which will make policy papers look like class doodles and give enough food for thought to feed a room full of intellectual types for a while, are back!

And if you still did not understand what I am talking about, it is the next version of Freakonomics, Superfreakonomics. And with a subtext which says why suicide bombers should buy life insurance, I am sure this book is going to pique anyone’s interest. So, does this book live up to the sequel hype?

I think the book is a very interesting read, but, it is not as good as the original. There are flashes of amazing insight in some chapters, but overall, the book didn’t feel like it is better than the version 1. There are 5 chapters

  1. How is a street prostitute like a department store Santa
  2. Why should suicide bombers buy life insurance
  3. Unbelievable stories about apathy and altruism
  4. The fix is in – and it is cheap and simple
  5. What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common

I thought the chapters 3 and 5 did not have as much to offer as the rest (no pun intended). The first chapter, manages to deal with an important issue rather candidly, in the true freakonomist style. It is definitely worth reading the economic analysis of the operations of street prostitutes and their strategies. So, the start of the book is in true freaky style.

Chapter 2 is about suicide bombers and insurance, and this is more of the narrative of an investigation rather than the conclusions. They do mention the conclusion, but this chapter feels more like an episode of Numb3rs. It does manage to hold your interest. I did not understand the raison d’être of the third chapter. It seems like a failed attempt to deal with behavioral economics and trying to come up with conclusions. Chapter 4 is interesting again, where the authors try to make the case for simple solutions for profound problems. Chapter 5, I thought was pointless. It seemed more like a canvassing article for geo-engineering more than the economic analysis for it. May be the authors’ intent was not that, but I felt the chapter felt like it at the end

So, would I suggest this book. Hmm, yes and no. It is interesting in places but not as much as the first version. A 6 out of 10.

Prime Obsession – definite read

OK first the review – go read the book – Prime Obsessionby John Derbyshire. ’nuff said. That is all, there is nothing else to say about this book – if you want to know more about the Riemann Hypothesis, this is the book to read. And if you want to know what is the Riemann Hypotheis too, this is the book to read. And knowing both is equally important, if you are fascinated by prime numbers (and numbers in general too). There might be others (and I haven’t read them yet !) but this book, is a definite read. If there is any complaint I have about this book, it is that sometimes the author does the wave of hands to say trust me this is the case, which I guess you need to, because one can’t explain all the proofs in mathematics. And trying to explain the zeta function, well, that is a different challenge altogether.

You need to read this book for three reasons

  1. To know the background for one of the Millenium problems (and one of the problems in Hilbert’s 23 problems [it is the number 8])
  2. To know what are the approaches mathematicians are taking to tackle the problem (quantum physics anyone?)
  3. And more importantly, to try and understand Riemann’s hypothesis itself, and how does knowing whether the non-trivial zeroes of the zeta function having a real part of 1/2 help in determining the distribution of the prime numbers

The book is divided into two sections. Section 1 deals with The Prime Number Theorem (PNT) and the second section deals with Riemann Hypothesis. Apart from these two sections, the author categorizes the even numbered chapters on the history of the development leading to the hypotheis (and to the future too) and the odd chapters are mathematical expositions.

The Prime Number Theorem

A relatively less known fact is that there is already an equation which tells us the number of primes that are available less than a given N. The equation says, very simply π (x) ~ N / log N (the π is the prime counting function, which is used to define the number of primes less than a given N. And this was determined in the 18th century by Gauss (and others). An implication of the PNT is that the probability of a number N to be prime is ~ 1/log(N) and that the Nth prime number is NlogN (all logarithms to the base e). So, if this was known so long ago, then what is the big fuss about the hypothesis ? Hmm, well the problem is the little squiggly and that is what (in a round about way) is what Riemann was hypothesizing about.
I won’t go into the details of how the PNT and the Riemann Hypothesis are related, but in this section, I saw the most beautiful mathematical equation that I encountered till now. Euler’s identity might be considered the most beautiful mathematical proof by most of the people, but for me this equation and its proof gave enough evidence to what beauty in Mathematics is all about. This proof, what the author calls The Golden Key is the Euler product formula. The proof in the book is around 2 pages and when I reached the final sentence, I was, for the lack of a better word, overwhelmed ! And look at that equation, it is so simple Σ n -s = Π(1-p-s)-1. This basically says, the sum of the numbers till n is equal to the product of primes. Sum of numbers equals the product of primes (yes I am paraphrasing it for effect!). But think about it, it is just awesome ! And this is also important because, the LHS is actually the Zeta function and the RHS is the product of primes.
The author goes further to explain how the PNT is improved further (enter calculus, err you thought this was about numbers, and so did I) where, π(x) ~ Li(x) where Li is the log integral function. There are lots of these proofs that the author describes, all leading up to the crescendo, which he calls the Turning the Golden Key, which is the chapter 19.

Riemann Hypothesis

In the second section, the author tries to explain the hypothesis and the higher math behind it. I must there were parts in this section which were OHT for me :(. For example, in the chapter 13, the author tries to explain the complex plane and how the function’s graph looks (knowing how a function’s graph looks definitely provides a lot of insight into how the function behaves), but I couldn’t really grasp it very well. And further in the chapter 20, he talks about Reimann operators and other approaches, which was too complex for my rather limited mathematical knowledge (no pun intended). For me, the section 2 is something that I will have to re-read till I get my head around it. For people who have a better grounding in mathematics than I do, I guess it will be easier

For me the section 1 is the favorite. The mathematics in that section is very accessible, understandable and the author does a splendid job in explaining the required mathematics. I might have read a section once or twice to understand the implications, but for most part – it was easy to follow.

And the other part of the book – the history of the developments. This is, lets just say, fabulous ! I could just read the historical chapters alone (yeah, yeah, because I don’t understand the Math so much, ok, go away !) to realize the amount of hard work involved in solving this equation. Every mathematician I knew of (and most that I didn’t know of) figured in the search for the proof of this problem. And yes, this is a problem though so simple sounding, is so complex. So, what was the problem statement anyway, you ask. Oh well, let’s see, do the prime numbers have a pattern ? Can you find out what is the next prime ? While you try to figure that out, pick up this book and read it, you will not regret it. A perfect 10 for this book. I am going to treasure this book and read it more than once. And looks like there are other books available on the Zeta function.

Export all the RSS feeds in Opera

I wanted to take a backup of my Opera profile including the RSS feeds. I find it convenient to read the feeds from Opera instead of an external viewer. When I used the standard export feeds option (File –> Import and Export –> Export Feed List), I realised that only those feeds that I am currently subscribed to are the ones that got exported. Aaah, that is a problem ! I have a lot of feeds in my feeds-list and I keep turning on and off a few of them as and when I feel I can’t keep up with them (sigh, the problem of over-information !)

I searched a bit to find out if there was any flag I am missing in the configuration. I didn’t find any. So, I thought, why not write a small script to do this for me. The first choice of language was python, but then I thought, naa, let me try something groovy 😀

Simple steps to do achieve this

  1. Find out where and how the feeds are currently stored in Opera
  2. If it is a standard format (which mostly it would be), find a library in Java that will parse that
  3. Convert that into an OPML file – again using some existing Java library

The answers for the above

  1. The feeds are stored in a .ini file (yaaay ! +1 for the Opera team for picking a simple format). They are stored in the mail directory (you can find that using about:opera and checking the mail directory). In the mail directory, the feeds are stored in a file named incoming1.txt (or any number of incoming.txt) files
    1. The format is simple. Each feed has a name, URL and whether you have subscribed to it or not in its own section. Here is an example
        [Feed 95]
        Name=good coders code, great reuse
        Update Frequency=3600
  2. Following this suggestion, I started with ini4j, but soon realised that it couldn’t handle UTF-8 files. And the feeds file is an UTF-8 file. So, I decided to checkout apache commons. The main library required for this is the commons-configuration, but this requires a bunch of dependencies
    1. Commons-collections
    2. commons-lang
    3. commons-logging
  3. And the exported file is an OPML file, specifically an OPML 1.0 file. The library of choice seems to be ROME for this. And ROME also has an OPML output generator too. Sweet ! The dependencies for this are
    1. rome-1.0.jar (the ROME library)
    2. opml-0.1.jar (the OPML generator)
    3. jdom.jar (a dependency for ROME)

I must say, I was a little annoyed with the list of dependencies, but then that is the Java world, so I shrugged my shoulders and continued.

The IniToOPML.groovy file exports the ini file to an opml 1.0 file. I couldn’t figure out why the <head></head> node was not getting generated, but for now, this seems to work fine.

I am not comfortable with Maven yet to write a pom.xml to automatically download the required packages for the binary. So, for now, it is source only (may be this way I will learn Maven !).

Stay hungry, Stay Foolish

The title of the book was possibly inspired by the famous Steve Jobs Stanford University speech. I would have like to see a little more creativity in the title, instead of an insipid verbatim copy of the speech’s title. That doesn’t reduce the content of the book to anything less than it is, but it is an observation.

So, what is the book about ? The book chronicles IIM-A graduates who did stay hungry and may be a tad foolish too. These are the graduates who decided to be entrepreneurs and persevered to make it big. They made a big impact not only to themselves, but also to the idea they were pursuing.

First things first – this is not the usual serious business story chronicle. This was the opinion shared by someone else I know who is an avid reader. The storytelling doesn’t have the usual seriousness of books of this genre. I think this is a a good thing as this makes the book a light read but with a strong message in the content. A message that sticks !

The author of the book, Rashmi Bansal is an IIM-A graduate and an entrepreneur. She interviewed IIM-A graduates (graduates of the PGP program) who are in very successful positions as entrepreneurs. And that is where the kicker is ! It is not about IIM-A graduates who are earning crazy money as salaries, but those people who decided to try something on their own.

The book has 3 sections and in each section, the author tackles a different kind of an entrepreneur. The 3 sections are

  1. The believers – people who knew entrepreneurship was the ‘Chosen Path’. They got into this straight after their MBA or may be after working for a couple of years. And they held on, till they made it big.
  2. The opportunists – these entrepreneurs did not plan to take this path but then opportunity knocked, they seized it. An insight into those people who seem to prove that you don’t have to be a born entrepreneur.
  3. The Alternate vision – these are individuals who are using entrepreneurship to make a social impact

Each of the above has a lot of interesting stories. Stories of people who believed that they could succeed, sometimes failed, but still persevered.

My favourite stories are of Venkat Krishnan of GiveIndia, Vijay Mahajan of Basix and that of Sunil Handa of the Eklavya foundation. The first two are in the alternate vision category, having tried to use their skills from IIM-A to create a platform to further social impact and the last one is in the ‘believers’ section.

I would suggest this book. It beats the oft-treaded path of (mostly boring) entrepreneurship books. It doesn’t tell you how to become an entrepreneur (nor can any book of course). By chronicling the stories of various entrepreneurs, Rashmi Bansal has enabled people to learn from their stories. It is no secret that an IIM-A graduate has a huge advantage because of the educational pedigree, but that doesn’t mean that others don’t have a chance to be successful entrepreneurs by learning from them. Also, the book is priced INR 125, which makes the book a steal. So, go grab a copy. It might cost you a lunch and a dinner, but you can stay hungry but definitely not foolish after you finish reading the book (ok, yes, that was a last minute cheesy line added for dramatics. Happy ? ).

Archives of programmes on LokSabha TV

Why can’t programmes on the LokSabha TV be archived for people to watch? After all, if this is the service of the LokSabha and that is a public body, there should be no reason why a particular program can’t be archived isn’t it? Agreed that the parliament sessions are sold (sic.) with great aplomb about the rates, but there are other programs on the LokSabha TV (even if not in the vernacular) that can be an interesting watch.

In this day of the invasion of TRP centric media channels (don’t believe me, oh well, you do, don’t you) with people shouting their heads off, this channel does seem to have decent quality line up of programs. And given that there is no serious news channel left to watch in India (before you try to mention your favourite news channel, count the number of times the anchor said, well I have to leave it there, we will come back after a commercial break). Also, count the number of times the same clip is played over and over – and I am not talking about the English news channels only. The vernacular (I can speak about the Telugu news channels) channels seem to have borrowed more than a leaf from the English news channels here.

And given the cost of the storage of the content I think the Govt. of India can afford to archive certain programs atl the very east. Actually, the parliamentary sessions should definitely be archived for the man on the street (for whom the MPs are fighting !) to view at any time (more on that later). Even if it is not the parliamentary sessions, programs like the Public Forum should definitely be archived. I think the LokSabha TV needs to learn from stations like NPR, living on earth, PBS to make their archives publicly available. If user-funded stations can do it, I see no reason why government owned (independent body of the government nevertheless) channels can’t.

And if it is copyrights that they are worried about, they can always license the content under some version of the creative commons license which will ensure non-commercial usage of the content. If the idea of the channel is to allow people to know how the government is functioning, not providing access to its programs seems contrarian.

The Economics of Microfinance – a must read

Participating in the growth microfinance (even if it is not the commercial growth) is one thing, and knowing why one should do that is another. After all, one is bound to ask sooner or later, does this really work. And if it does, what are the various challenges in the field and if it doesn’t work, then why is it so. It is not just about the execution of randomized trials and saying that there is a positive or no impact. It is everything from, how much interest should one charge the lender, should loans be given only to women, and if so, does that model create a positive impact, what should be the funding model – should it be based on subsidies or would it be a self-sustaining MFI, and more. Questions like these are the ones that are tackled in this book. The authors – Beatriz Armendàriz and Prof. Jonathan Morduch are well known in the field of microfinance.

Warning: long read. For starters, this is not a general read. It feels like a textbook and I guess it might be a textbook in some schools. So expect a little dry read. That doesn’t mean that the book is boring. On the contrary, each chapter lets the reader on one of the aspects of the field. There are instances where the reader is left with an a-haa ! moment, understanding why certain things are difficult from an institutional perspective (like for example, does group lending always work ? How does one model returns for lending in such a scenario).

There are 10 chapters in the book

  1. Rethinking banking
  2. Why intervene in credit markets
  3. Roots of microfinance : ROSCAs and credit cooperatives
  4. Group lending
  5. Beyond group lending
  6. Savings and insurance
  7. Gender
  8. Measuring impacts
  9. Subsidies and sustainability
  10. Managing microfinance

The first chapter is an introduction to the traditional banking model and how it needs a big shift in processes when it comes to microfinance. The usual model of – have collateral – get debt – repay it – get the collateral back doesn’t work with microfinance. Also, the traditional model is not used for consumption . And like Stuart Rutherford mentions, consumption ((did not read Rutherfords’ book yet) as an end for microfinance is not necessarily a bad idea.

The second chapter is about how to and more importantly, why, intervention into the traditional credit markets is important. And by traditional credit markets, you can think of either the (evil ?) moneylender or the banks. This chapter also covers, among other things, the adverse selection (the asymmetry of information, wherein the bank knows very little about the riskiness of the project), the moral hazard (ex ante – how motivated are the borrowers to allow for a good return, ex post – how motivated are the borrowers to payback after the realisation of returns). Not only are these issues dealt with, the authors also model these issues into nice mathematical equations (ok, may be not so nice sometimes 🙂 ). This provides a good grounding into the interest level and return calculations.

The roots of microfinance talks about how this field was operational long before Prof. Yunus made it famous, albeit in a different form. The idea of credit cooperatives and the various auction models for getting the loans are discussed. On a personal note, I kind of understood how the credit society that my dad used to be associated with operated and how they’d determine the interest rates and distribution mechanism (of course, in his case it was a very limited audience and there wasn’t as much an asymmetry of information and risk involved. I digress.). The authors also design a simple model for a random ROSCA, and even though I must admit the equations do look intimidating, it is worth the effort to bend your mind to understand it because it gives an idea into the functioning of the ROSCA.

The next two chapters go in depth into the well-known and possibly the prevalent model of microfinance these days – group lending. Borrow in a group, mitigated risk and peer monitoring comes free ! Hmm, that sounds like a marketing campaign 😉 !  These two chapters discuss the various flavours (if you will) of group lending.

The chapter of savings and insurance discuss the lesser known (or is less famous !) aspect of microfinance – micro-savings and micro-insurance. Both of these areas are still growing areas (growing – with my limited sphere of knowledge). The authors don’t  spend too much time in the specifics of either of the fields.

The chapter of gender is about whether women are better customers of microfinance and if there is a larger impact (what Prof. Yunus calls the double bottom-line) by lending to women than to men. Again, this possibly is a topic onto itself, so the authors don’t get too much into specifics.

Measuring impacts is a chapter on the various ways to measure the impact of microfinance. Apart from the recent interest in randomized trials, there are other ways to measure the impact of microfinance. These are not dealt in depth, but the reader is given enough to understand how an impact study happens. Like the authors write in the section titled Addressing the selection problem in practice

In the following sections, we consider a series of related approaches to impact evaluation. The overview is not exhaustive and we do not aim to provide a full survey of impact surveys to date. Rather, we aim to point to key methodological issues and to gather several important results. The results to date are decidedly mixed, with some evidence of modest positive impacts of microfinance on income, expenditure, and related variables, while other studies find that positive impacts disappear once selection biases are addressed.

And this seems to be still an open issue, with recent studies still not being very conclusive, but giving enough evidence that there is a positive impact if not uniformly across households.

The chapter on subsidies is about the MFIs. It tries to answer a very simple (well, not so simple) question – should the MFI rely on subsidies or should they operate on a commercial basis. How does the MFI become sustainable ? This is an interesting topic and the authors do point out the open questions in this area. Questions that need more research to find the answers.

Managing microfinance is about managing the MFI. Managing how the loan officers evaluate the potential borrowers, setting expectations, devising incentives for the staff. Irrespective of the microfinance becoming the poster-child of relatively risk-free returns, there are issues in the management of the MFIs which are very important, like the story of Corposol.

So, how does this book stand. Well, it is a must-read if your interest is more than as a lender / borrower. A 9 out of 10. Each chapter has quite a few open questions which still need answers and the authors clearly mark such areas (like interest calculations, measuring impacts, ‘mission-drift’ in subsidies’ cost-benefit analysis).

The book is like a textbook, so it does require some amount of patience. One problem I had was the usage of non-standard symbols in the mathematical equations. They might be standard symbols in Economics, I am not sure, but I found it little-to-lot annoying. The explanation for the equations though, is crisp, and the authors do mention the reference if you really want to get to the gut of the result. Oh, by the way, the reference list is amazing. I guess one can spend a life time just with the reference list :). Like always (sigh!) I didn’t work on the exercise problems. I am hoping that I will do that when I start re-reading individual chapters. Yes, I think this is a book which will require more than one read. Pick your area of interest, or if you don’t have any, solving the exercises and the reference should let you find it. So, go ahead and get the book. And looks like the second edition is out !

Toggle the menu bar in Opera 10.51

How to display the Opera icon; How to hide the menu bar

In Opera 10.51, the menu bar (the one with File, View, Feeds etc.) has been replaced with a nice O (the Opera icon), thereby saving screen space. And I think that is a neat thing to do. The menu bar is not required for most of the time that you are browsing, so why have it on the screen.

To view the menu, you press ALT and the menu drops down. It is a little cumbersome to navigate the options, but something that you will get used to. You can get the menu bar to be displayed, by clicking on the Show Menu bar option after you press ALT.

The flip side of this is – how do you get the Opera icon back? I kind of liked the Opera icon menu and didn’t want the menu bar. The way to do it is to open the ‘Show Menu’ configuration setting in Opera and disable it. You can do it by clicking this link Show Menu and uncheck the option. Thanks to Tamil for this tip.